The phenomenon of Sia always somewhat baffled me. I understand the pitch-perfection of “Breathe Me”, don’t get me wrong, and at the cathartic end of Six Feet Under it was close to overwhelming. But it was only when I saw another performer (Skye, formerly of Morcheeba) open for Matthew Herbert in New York that I apprehended how passionate people get about this generally staid music. That age group is a little older than me, and part of my response to this music could be a reaction against the perceived slide away from the hip/the exciting/the edgy that comes with getting older. To which this music, I always thought, would provide a depressingly cliched soundtrack.
I suppose it fits, then, that Sia’s new album Some People Have REAL Problems is being put out on Hear Music, the label that distributes through Starbucks. The demographics overlap, maybe, but it doesn’t bode well for those hoping for some return to relevance from the singer who promised, early on, to rival other Aussie songstresses like George, Sarah Blasko, and Clare Bowditch. Turns out that “Sunday” and “Breathe Me” were indicators only of the raw emotion to be later polished and repolished into something so unobtrusive it hardly makes any impact at all.
“Day Too Soon” is an understated pick for first single. Sure, it has the easy listening chorus and soaring string accompaniment, and Sia gets the opportunity to warble at the top of her range. But it feels somewhat premeditated, as if the building emotion was all mapped out beforehand. Sia’s voice is intermittently gorgeous, but it’s actually when she forgets the affectation. On “Academia” Sia is accompanied by Beck, and the rapid pace of the verses mean that she doesn’t have time to put in a lot of extra vocal tricks and flourishes. Elsewhere, she either croaks in an attempt at intimacy or cries out with her best imitation of an Idol hopeful (a good one), her wide vibrato idiosyncratic but compelling. “Buttons”, included on Some People Have REAL Problems as a secret track, caused something of a stir online earlier this year when its video was posted by Perez Hilton (is that a good endorsement to advertise?). But the song itself is upbeat and effective, all jumpy guitar funk and pinging piano.
But there are some problems here. First off, if you react unfavorably to musical and lyrical cliches then you’ll have a tough time getting into Sia’s songs wholeheartedly. Occasionally things pick up. The aforementioned “Academia” not only contains a few witty lyrics, but employs a neat switch-up in the chorus that’s slow-dragged and gorgeously textured. But more typical is “I Go to Sleep”, a pretty and subtle waltz, sure, but lacking the impact of something new and different.
Part of the problem is that these songs run a little long. I guess it’s part of the atmosphere-driven, downtempo trip-hop of Massive Attack and Portishead that started this whole musical movement. But Sia miscalculates by extending the verses and choruses one or two too many times. And maybe the tunes themselves aren’t the most compelling: “The Girl You Lost to Cocaine”, for example, is just a series of ascending/descending scales, a retread of any number of funky girl-soul songs over the years. Some People Have REAL Problems is going to please those who knew they were going to like the record before hearing a single song. It’s good to have artists like that, I suppose, but if you’re looking at Sia to reprise something of her “Destiny” disaffection you won’t find too much here. It’s good-girl soul for the Starbucks set. Make of that what you will.